Learning to Play
by Mylos Sonka
Vance Terry (1934-2001) is one of the very finest steel men ever to record both on nonpedal with Billy Jack Wills and pedal work with Jimmy Rivers later. Most of the top steel men I've ever talked to seem to put him on their favorites list as well. After he left Bob Wills in 1955 at the age of 21 to go to college, he never really pursued a music career, but only played for amusement. Fortunately for us he taped a lot of his gigs with Jimmy Rivers at the 23 Club in Brisbane, CA between 1960-64 (Buddy Emmons would come down to the Club to listen and sit in). The photo at the top of the page shows Vance onstage with his Bigsby sometime before May of 1954, when he had Paul Bigsby install two pedals. It is nearly identical to the Bigsby now being played by Lee Jeffries in the Big Sandy band. It is now a jewel in the collection of Bigsby expert Paul Wernick, who has lovingly restored it to its mid-1954 condition.
Lloyd Taylor (Frankini) was a local bandleader and a good friend of Bob Wills who hired the 16-year-old steel player on the recommendation of Vance's mentor, Herb Remington. "Even as a kid he was playing very advanced," Frankini told me. When Taylor (Frankini) got in hot water with the Musician's local for not hiring a steel man out of the Hall, he told them, "You find me a steel player who's fit to tune that kid's guitar, and I'll hire him!" When Billy Jack Wills' steel player Tommy Varner was drafted in 1951, Vance was recommended to Billy Jack Wills as a replacement. Tiny Moore was less than enthusiastic. As the three of them sat in the office at Wills Point, Frankini said he reassured Tiny that Vance was a quick learner and could remember arrangements. Billy Jack decided to give the kid a try. Years later Tiny Moore said, "Vance Terry was the finest steel player I ever worked with." The band made daily broadcasts on KFBK in Sacramento, advertising their numerous personal appearances all over the west coast. The band transcribed more than 100 numbers for the station to play while they were on tour. These transcriptions were saved by Lloyd Taylor (Frankini), who later gave them to Vance. Joaquin Records has issued one CD of this material, with a second forthcoming sometime this summer. Finally, great news for players and fans - there is a documentary and western swing steel instruction video featuring Vance currently in production in Vermont.
The known recordings of Vance Terry's playing are:
If you have questions, suggestions for improvements, or additional information, please let me know.